Purpose is the key to Computer Programming

Annie Murphy Paul, The Brilliant Blog

Why does this matter?

Teachers are often called upon to answer this question about an academic subject, and computer science instructors may face this demand more frequently than most. Learning to write lines of code can seem, to many students, like a pointless exercise in tedium.

But a few professors of computer science have a compelling reply at the ready. They are participants in the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software project, known as HFOSS—or, more grandly, Software for Humanity. Why does this matter? these professors might respond. Because it’s helping to feed needy people in Haiti, or to deliver supplies to earthquake survivors in China, or to manage the medical care of malaria victims in Rwanda.

These are all actual real-world humanitarian missions that have benefited from computer programming services provided for free by students engaged in an HFOSS project. Started in 2007 at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and now operating at a dozen East Coast colleges and universities from Maine to Washington, D.C., the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software project brings together students eager to solve real-world problems with social service agencies desperate for their help.

In Haiti, a nonprofit organization called ACDI/VOCA uses an app developed by student coders to track data on recipients of food rations. In China, volunteers assisting the victims of an earthquake were managed via a computerized system programmed by college students. And in Rwanda, doctors employ an electronic medical record system, created in part by U.S. undergraduates, to monitor the spread of malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. The HFOSS project has been likened to the well-known charity Habitat for Humanity—except that, instead of building houses for the needy, participants are building computer programs for use in situations where information is the scarcest and most precious resource.

One of the goals driving the project is to draw a more diverse group of students to computer science—young people, including women and minorities, who might find the prospect of helping people in need around the globe more appealing than learning programming for its own sake. Another aim is to counter misconceptions about what computer programmers actually do. Participants learn that “programming is part of a complex, team-oriented, creative process,” writes Ralph Morelli, a professor of computer science at Trinity, in an article he authored with other colleagues involved in the project. “The HFOSS development process has no room for lone programmers working in isolation.”

Students who volunteer their efforts also gain real-world experience that is likely to make them more attractive to employers —experience that is often hard to come by in academic settings. Take the Sahana project, for example. Sahana is a disaster management system used in the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides and other catastrophes to coordinate information about survivors, volunteers and supplies. HFOSS students write sections of code that update, adapt and expand on the current system, but in accordance with the standards set out by the students’ “client,” the Sahana Software Foundation. All student-produced code is reviewed by the Sahana team before being incorporated into the system. Documentation must be provided and deadlines met in a large-scale international collaboration, similar to the ones computer science graduates will likely encounter in the workplace.

Students may even forge contacts with industry professionals. Consultants fromAccenture, the management consulting and technology services firm, serve as volunteer mentors and advisors to students working on HFOSS projects. (Funding for the HFOSS program comes from a grant from the National Science Foundation.)

But the most unexpected benefit of helping to create “software for humanity” is that it likely improves students’ learning. An emerging body of research demonstrates that students who find meaning and relevance in their studies are more engaged and motivated to master the material. Students must recognize the value of academic work themselves, however—it can’t simply be pointed out by an instructor.

In fact, a teacher’s heavy-handed emphasis on the relevance of students’ coursework can even backfire. Several studies have found, for example, that informing students that the study of mathematics will be important to their futures actually underminesinterest in math among students who weren’t very interested in math to start with, or who have doubts about their competence in math.

A more effective approach is to “encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of course material to their lives,” writes Chris S. Hulleman, a research associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, in a 2010 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Hulleman and his coauthors found that a writing exercise in which students were asked to apply the material they were learning in their math or psychology courses to their own lives increased their interest in those subjects. The effect was strongest among students who had low expectations for their performance in math or psychology, or had performed poorly in these subjects in the past.

Other research reports that even when academic work is boring, providing a “pro-social, beyond-the-self-oriented purpose for learning” helps students to persist in the face of boredom, and can even help them raise their grades. “When tasks are likely to be experienced as tedious or uninteresting—as many repetitive, foundational, skill-building math and science tasks are in the U.S.—it can be helpful to focus on creating meaning,” writes Angela Duckworth in a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year. (Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is most famous for having demonstrated the importance of “grit” to academic success.)

In the case of building “software for humanity,” the relevance and purpose of the work hardly needs pointing out. Students can see how their experience working on real-world programming projects will benefit them when it’s time to apply for a job in the field. And HFOSS participants are well aware that their efforts are contributing to a cause bigger than themselves. When instructors supply a satisfying answer to students’ pressing question—“Why does this matter?”—engagement, motivation and persistence take care of themselves.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Is a sense of relevance and purpose the key to engagement, motivation and persistence? Please share your thoughts on my blog. And if you’d like to browse past issues of The Brilliant Report, click here.

I love to hear from readers. Please email me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com. You can also visit my website, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation onFacebook. Be brilliant!

All my best,

Annie
Annie

Struggling With Privilege

The Harvard Crimson

The late historian and professor Tony R. Judt once told Historically Speaking that our task “is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly.”

While Tony Judt certainly was not talking about college life, his message seems to extend to us here at Harvard.

Just listen to the newly minted Dean of the College, Rakesh Khurana, speak about the college experience he hopes each student will get at Harvard. You will hear him talk about “transformation,” and his idea of a “transformative” college experience is deeply rooted in embracing discomfort. Real growth, to Dean Khurana, stems from branching out and exploring this sort of uncomfortable new territory.

Discomfort at Harvard comes in many different forms. But the main source of my own has come from class, privilege, and wealth.

It’s no secret that a good chunk of the Harvard population is unusually wealthy. In fact, according to Walter Benn Michaels, author of the polemic “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,” roughly 75 percent of Harvard students’ families have incomes over $100,000 per year, while only 20 percent of American families have incomes that high.

But what’s more troubling than these statistics alone is the fact that, once the most wealthy and privileged come to Harvard, they tend to stick together.

Here’s an example: When I first arrived at Harvard, I ran into someone from back home in New York City. She invited me to dinner with “a few other kids from New York.” Hers was an innocent display of kindness, and yet she was precipitating an insidious phenomenon—the rapid formation of the New York City “clique.”

So why do the New York City (and LA, and Greenwich, and so on) “elite” coalesce into these groups? This is where discomfort comes into the picture.

Yes, people do tend to find friends who have similar backgrounds and beliefs. That’s the easy answer. But in my experience, when it comes to the particularly privileged, there’s something more at play.

Unlike our different cultural or religious backgrounds, privilege is not a source of pride or a difference from our classmates that we choose to celebrate. Instead, privilege—and more importantly what privilege says about each of our characters—makes us uncomfortable. Our privilege forces us to question our worthiness and our merit, two of the things most highly valued at an institution like this one.

I find myself asking: If I got here because of the advantages afforded me by my background (a fact that is almost irrefutably true), then what does that say about my worthiness? What about my classmates who have made it here without any of the opportunities that I had? How do I reconcile my own desire to succeed with the guilt that I can’t help but feel about having had a leg up in the first place? What am I, or where would I be, without my privilege?

These questions are tough to ask and even harder to answer. The natural reaction to these questions, questions that inspire self-doubt, is to insulate ourselves from ever having to confront what it is that makes us so uneasy.

It is possible to avoid them altogether: by surrounding ourselves with friends who grew up the same way. We can avoid situations that bring these questions to the surface and then go about our college lives in bubbles of comfort.

But while avoidance is certainly possible, it’s far from right. If we experience college with social blinders on, we miss out.

In the words of Harvard’s mission statement, “Education at Harvard should liberate students to explore, to create, [and] to challenge.” It’s the last word that matters most. Forcing ourselves to challenge our beliefs, our upbringing, and the way of life that we may have experienced for our first 18 years is undeniably difficult. But it’s also essential to what Harvard seeks to accomplish with each of its students: a broader understanding of the world, and personal growth.

Failure to confront discomfort now leads to an equal inability to confront it later. If our awareness of our classmates of different socioeconomic backgrounds exists purely in the realm of abstraction, then we have failed not only to undergo Khurana’s “transformative” college experience, but we have also failed in making ourselves socially responsible citizens.

Nick F. Barber ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.

Inspire Thoughtful Creative Writing Through Art

Edutopia

Image Credit: “The Volunteers” ©2012 Denise M. Cassano

A few years ago, I showed my sixth graders The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer. It’s an epic painting of a young black sailor in a small broken boat, surrounded by flailing sharks, huge swells, and a massive storm in the distance. I asked my students the simple question, “What’s happening?” The responses ranged from “He’s a slave trying to escape” to “He’s a fisherman lost at sea.” The common theme with the responses, though, was the tone — most students were very concerned for his welfare. “That boat looks rickety. I think he’s going to get eaten by the sharks,” was a common refrain. Then a very quiet, shy girl raised her hand. “It’s OK, he’ll be fine,” she said. “The ship will save him.”

The room got quiet as everyone stared intently at the painting. I looked closely at it. “What ship?” I responded. The young girl walked up to the image and pointed to the top left corner. Sure enough, faded in the smoky distance was a ship.

This revelation changed the tone and content of the conversation that followed. Some thought it was the ship that would save him. Others thought it was the ship that cast him off to his death. Would the storm, sharks, or ship get him? The best part of this intense debate was hearing the divergent, creative responses. Some students even argued. The written story produced as a result of analyzing this image was powerful.

Since this experience, I have developed strategies that harness the power of observation, analysis, and writing through my art lessons.

Children naturally connect thoughts, words, and images long before they master the skill of writing. This act of capturing meaning in multiple symbol systems and then vacillating from one medium to another is calledtransmediation. While using art in the classroom, students transfer this visual content, and then add new ideas and information from their personal experiences to create newly invented narratives. Using this three-step process of observe, interpret, and create helps kids generate ideas, organize thoughts, and communicate effectively.

Step 1: Observe

Asking students to look carefully and observe the image is fundamental to deep, thoughtful writing. Keep this in mind when choosing art to use in class. Look for images with:

  • Many details: If it is a simple image, there’s not much to analyze.
  • Characters: There should be people or animals in the image to write about.
  • Colors: Find colors that convey a mood.
  • Spatial relationships: How do the background and foreground relate?

Lead your students through the image. “I like it” is not the answer we are looking for. Ask questions that guide the conversation. Encourage divergent answers and challenge them. Try these questions:

  • What shapes do you see? Do they remind you of anything?
  • What colors do you see? How do those colors make you feel?
  • What patterns do you see? How are they made?
  • Do you see any unusual textures? What do they represent?
  • What is the focal point of the image? How did the artist bring your attention to the focal point?
  • How did the artist create the illusion of space in the image?
  • If you were living in the picture and could look all around you, what would you see?
  • If you were living in the picture, what would you smell? What would you hear?

Keep your questions open-ended, and record what students say so that they’ll have a reference for later. Identify and challenge assumptions. At this point, we are not looking for inferences or judgments, just observations.

Step 2: Make Inferences by Analyzing Art

Once they have discussed what they see, students then answer the question, “What is happening?” They must infer their answers from the image and give specific reasons for their interpretations.

For example, while looking at The Gulf Stream, one student said, “The storm already passed and is on its way out. You can tell because the small boat the man is on has been ripped apart and the mast is broken.” That is what we are looking for in their answers: rational thoughts based on inferences from data in the picture. No two responses will be exactly the same, but they can all be correct as long as the student can coherently defend his or her answer with details from the image. When children express their opinions based on logic and these details, they are analyzing art and using critical thinking skills.

Here are some tips to model a mature conversation about art:

  • Give adequate wait time. We are often so rushed that we don’t give children time to think and reflect.
  • Ask students to listen to, think about, and react to the ideas of others.
  • Your questions should be short and to the point.
  • Highlight specific details to look at while analyzing art (characters, facial expressions, objects, time of day, weather, colors, etc.).
  • Explain literal vs. symbolic meaning (a spider’s web can be just that, or it can symbolize a trap).

Step 3: Create

After thoughtful observation and discussion, students are abuzz with ideas. For all of the following writing activities, they must use details from the image to support their ideas. Here are just a few of the many ways we can react to art:

For Younger Students:

  • Locate and describe shapes and patterns.
  • Describe time of day and mood of scene.
  • Describe a character in detail with a character sketch. Characters may be people, animals, or inanimate objects.
  • Write a story based on this image including a brand new character.
  • Give students specific vocabulary that they must incorporate into their story.

For Older Students:

  • Write down the possible meaning of the image, trade with a partner, and persuade your partner to believe that your story is the correct one based on details in the image.
  • Identify characters and their motives. Who are they and what do they want? Explain how you know based on details.
  • Pretend that you are in the image, and describe what you see, smell, feel, and hear.
  • Describe the details that are just outside of the image, the ones we can’t see.
  • Introduce dialogue into your story. What are they saying?
  • Sequence the events of the story. What happened five minutes before this scene, what is happening now, and what happens five minutes later? How do you know?
  • Write from the perspective of one of the characters in the image.
  • Explain who is the protagonist and antagonist. What is their conflict?

Thinking and Communicating

We don’t know what the future holds for our students, but we do know that they will have to think critically, make connections, and communicate clearly. Art can help students do that. During this year’s commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College, Fareed Zakaria said, “It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them [ideas] and sort them out.” Art can be that link to helping students organize their ideas and produce coherent, thoughtful writing.

As you consider teaching writing through art, I recommend reading In Pictures and in Words by Kate Wood Ray and Beth Olshansky’sPictureWriting.org website.

How have you used the arts to inspire creative thinking in your students? Please tell us about it in the comments.

Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today

The Washington Post

An interesting article on children being unable to focus in school – hopefully Sacred Heart’s beliefs in student-centered education and physical movement help greatly.
By Valerie Strauss July 8
The Centers for Disease Control tells us that in recent years there has been a jump in the percentage of young people diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD: 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 and to 11 percent in 2011. The reasons for the rise are multiple, and include changes in diagnostic criteria, medication treatment and more awareness of the condition. In the following post, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England, suggests yet another reason more children are being diagnosed with ADHD, whether or not they really have it: the amount of time kids are forced to sit while they are in school. This appeared on the TimberNook blog.

By Angela Hanscom

A perfect stranger pours her heart out to me over the phone. She complains that her 6-year-old son is unable to sit still in the classroom. The school wants to test him for ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). This sounds familiar, I think to myself. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I’ve noticed that this is a fairly common problem today.

The mother goes on to explain how her son comes home every day with a yellow smiley face. The rest of his class goes home with green smiley faces for good behavior. Every day this child is reminded that his behavior is unacceptable, simply because he can’t sit still for long periods of time.

The mother starts crying. “He is starting to say things like, ‘I hate myself’ and ‘I’m no good at anything.’” This young boy’s self-esteem is plummeting all because he needs to move more often.
Over the past decade, more and more children are being coded as having attention issues and possibly ADHD. A local elementary teacher tells me that at least eight of her twenty-two students have trouble paying attention on a good day. At the same time, children are expected to sit for longer periods of time. In fact, even kindergarteners are being asked to sit for thirty minutes during circle time at some schools.

The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Lets face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.

I recently observed a fifth grade classroom as a favor to a teacher. I quietly went in and took a seat towards the back of the classroom. The teacher was reading a book to the children and it was towards the end of the day. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kids were tilting back their chairs back at extreme angles, others were rocking their bodies back and forth, a few were chewing on the ends of their pencils, and one child was hitting a water bottle against her forehead in a rhythmic pattern.

This was not a special-needs classroom, but a typical classroom at a popular art-integrated charter school. My first thought was that the children might have been fidgeting because it was the end of the day and they were simply tired. Even though this may have been part of the problem, there was certainly another underlying reason.

We quickly learned after further testing, that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance. Only one! Oh my goodness, I thought to myself. These children need to move!

Ironically, many children are walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system today–due to restricted movement. In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions, for hours at a time. Just like with exercising, they need to do this more than just once-a-week in order to reap the benefits. Therefore, having soccer practice once or twice a week is likely not enough movement for the child to develop a strong sensory system.

Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep.”

Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.

How to get girls more interested in STEM subjects

Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss September 15

Eighth graders from Kelly Miller Middle School, Donte Batts, 14, left, and Endia West, 13, do a thin layer chromatography lab on June 2, 2014. Students from Deal Middle and Kelly Miller Middle had their first face to face forensic science lab at Deal Middle School in Washington, DC. The students at both schools did a weekly after-school course for six weeks, and have been Skyping together to share what they learn in each class.
Why are girls underrepresented in STEM classes and careers? What can be done about it? Author Annie Murphy Paul discusses that in this post. She is a contributing writer for Time magazine, writes a weekly column about learning for Time.com, blogs about learning for a number of websites and contributes to various publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. Her latest book is “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.” This post appeared on Paul’s Brilliant Blog and was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Annie Murphy Paul

To hear some ed tech enthusiasts tell it, online learning is sweeping aside the barriers that have in the past prevented access to education. But such pronouncements are premature. As it turns out, students often carry these barriers right along with them, from the real world into the virtual one.

Female students, for example, are poorly represented in science, technology, engineering, and math courses offered online, just as they are scarce in STEM classes conducted in physical classrooms. Demographic analyses of the students enrolled in much-hyped “massive open online courses” show the depth of the gender gap. “Circuits and Electronics,” the first MOOC developed by the online consortium of universities known as edX, had a student body that was 12 percent female, according to a study published in 2013. Another analysis, posted on the Coursera blog earlier this year, found that female enrollment in the company’s courses was lowest—around 20 percent—in subjects like computer science, engineering, and mathematics.

These dismally low numbers provide a reminder that “access” to education is more complicated than simply throwing open the digital doors to whoever wants to sign up. So how can we turn the mere availability of online instruction in STEM into true access for female students?

One potential solution to this information-age problem comes from an old-fashioned source: single-sex education. The Online School for Girls, founded in 2009, provides an all-female e-learning experience. (A companion institution, the Online School for Boys, is opening this fall.) It appears to be doing an especially good job of educating girls in STEM: Last year, 21 of its approximately 1,000 students were recognized by the National Center for Women in Technology “for their aspirations and achievements in computing and technology.” And over the course of the 2013-2014 academic year, the Online School for Girls prepared 30 female students to take the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. To put that number in perspective: 25 American states each prepared fewer than 30 girls to take the AP computer science exam.
It’s hard to argue with these results. But it is possible to quibble with the way the school frames its mission. “Guided by current research on girls’ learning,” the school’s website declares, the school emphasizes “connection among participants” and incorporates “collaboration into the learning experience.” But evidence is weak that there is such a thing as “girls’ learning,” online or offline, if what is meant by that is that each gender has cognitive differences that should be accommodated by different instructional methods. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot has argued persuasively that, while small inherent differences in aptitude between males and females do exist (even as infants, for example, boys seem to have an edge in spatial cognition), society takes these small differences and makes them much bigger—by supporting boys in math and science, and by discouraging girls who study these subjects.

Such overt biases should have no place in online education—but we should also strive to avoid importing subtler misconceptions about “girls’ learning” being different from “boys’ learning.” We need, instead, to address the psychological sense of belonging that female students so often lack when they enter STEM environments.

Studies carried out in physical classrooms demonstrate that these environments are enormously influential. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, University of Washington assistant professor Sapna Cheryan and her coauthors exposed a group of female college students to a computer science classroom appointed in stereotypically male-geek fashion: video games and junk food strewn about, Star Trek poster on the wall. Another group of female undergraduates was invited into a computer science classroom that looked quite different: bowls of healthy snacks, a nature poster, an open phone book. Altering these environmental cues, Cheryan notes, “was sufficient to boost female undergraduates’ interest in computer science to the level of their male peers.”

These same dynamics play out online, as Cheryan demonstrated in a subsequent study. Changing the design of a virtual classroom—from one that conveyed computer science stereotypes to one that did not —“significantly increased women’s interest and anticipated success in computer science,” Cheryan and her colleagues reported.
In an experiment now underway at Stanford University, researchers Brian Perone and Michelle Friend are using a virtual reality classroom, complete with virtual “classmates,” to investigate the effect of student gender ratio on young women’s ability to absorb and remember computer science course material, as well as their interest in taking more classes in the subject. Preliminary results suggest that female students learn better when they are surrounded by female classmates —even virtual ones—and the more women in the room, the better. Perone’s and Friend’s findings suggest that the reason behind the success of the Online School for Girls may not be its stated emphasis on teaching girls differently, but simply the fact that its students know that their classmates are girls like them.

Another way to promote female students’ sense of belonging in online math and science courses would be putting more women at the head of virtual classrooms. (As professors Lisa L. Martin and Barbara F. Walter noted in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, MOOCs are overwhelmingly taught by men.) Female students could also be offered online mentoring by accomplished women working in STEM fields, a tack taken by Women in Technology Sharing Online (WitsOn). The brainchild of Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and the president of Harvey Mudd College, WitsOn was a one-time, six-week-long program that Klawe hopes to organize again in the future.

All these approaches have in common a focus, not on teaching girls and women differently, but on helping them to feel differently about their place in the fields of math and science. Just as in the physical world, in the virtual sphere the barriers to girls’ and women’s advancement in STEM fields remain very much in place. With informed intervention and clever design, however, the digital walls may prove easier to scale.
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

How to get girls more interested in STEM subjects

Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss September 15

Eighth graders from Kelly Miller Middle School, Donte Batts, 14, left, and Endia West, 13, do a thin layer chromatography lab on June 2, 2014. Students from Deal Middle and Kelly Miller Middle had their first face to face forensic science lab at Deal Middle School in Washington, DC. The students at both schools did a weekly after-school course for six weeks, and have been Skyping together to share what they learn in each class.
Why are girls underrepresented in STEM classes and careers? What can be done about it? Author Annie Murphy Paul discusses that in this post. She is a contributing writer for Time magazine, writes a weekly column about learning for Time.com, blogs about learning for a number of websites and contributes to various publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. Her latest book is “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.” This post appeared on Paul’s Brilliant Blog and was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Annie Murphy Paul

To hear some ed tech enthusiasts tell it, online learning is sweeping aside the barriers that have in the past prevented access to education. But such pronouncements are premature. As it turns out, students often carry these barriers right along with them, from the real world into the virtual one.

Female students, for example, are poorly represented in science, technology, engineering, and math courses offered online, just as they are scarce in STEM classes conducted in physical classrooms. Demographic analyses of the students enrolled in much-hyped “massive open online courses” show the depth of the gender gap. “Circuits and Electronics,” the first MOOC developed by the online consortium of universities known as edX, had a student body that was 12 percent female, according to a study published in 2013. Another analysis, posted on the Coursera blog earlier this year, found that female enrollment in the company’s courses was lowest—around 20 percent—in subjects like computer science, engineering, and mathematics.

These dismally low numbers provide a reminder that “access” to education is more complicated than simply throwing open the digital doors to whoever wants to sign up. So how can we turn the mere availability of online instruction in STEM into true access for female students?

One potential solution to this information-age problem comes from an old-fashioned source: single-sex education. The Online School for Girls, founded in 2009, provides an all-female e-learning experience. (A companion institution, the Online School for Boys, is opening this fall.) It appears to be doing an especially good job of educating girls in STEM: Last year, 21 of its approximately 1,000 students were recognized by the National Center for Women in Technology “for their aspirations and achievements in computing and technology.” And over the course of the 2013-2014 academic year, the Online School for Girls prepared 30 female students to take the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. To put that number in perspective: 25 American states each prepared fewer than 30 girls to take the AP computer science exam.
It’s hard to argue with these results. But it is possible to quibble with the way the school frames its mission. “Guided by current research on girls’ learning,” the school’s website declares, the school emphasizes “connection among participants” and incorporates “collaboration into the learning experience.” But evidence is weak that there is such a thing as “girls’ learning,” online or offline, if what is meant by that is that each gender has cognitive differences that should be accommodated by different instructional methods. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot has argued persuasively that, while small inherent differences in aptitude between males and females do exist (even as infants, for example, boys seem to have an edge in spatial cognition), society takes these small differences and makes them much bigger—by supporting boys in math and science, and by discouraging girls who study these subjects.

Such overt biases should have no place in online education—but we should also strive to avoid importing subtler misconceptions about “girls’ learning” being different from “boys’ learning.” We need, instead, to address the psychological sense of belonging that female students so often lack when they enter STEM environments.

Studies carried out in physical classrooms demonstrate that these environments are enormously influential. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, University of Washington assistant professor Sapna Cheryan and her coauthors exposed a group of female college students to a computer science classroom appointed in stereotypically male-geek fashion: video games and junk food strewn about, Star Trek poster on the wall. Another group of female undergraduates was invited into a computer science classroom that looked quite different: bowls of healthy snacks, a nature poster, an open phone book. Altering these environmental cues, Cheryan notes, “was sufficient to boost female undergraduates’ interest in computer science to the level of their male peers.”

These same dynamics play out online, as Cheryan demonstrated in a subsequent study. Changing the design of a virtual classroom—from one that conveyed computer science stereotypes to one that did not —“significantly increased women’s interest and anticipated success in computer science,” Cheryan and her colleagues reported.
In an experiment now underway at Stanford University, researchers Brian Perone and Michelle Friend are using a virtual reality classroom, complete with virtual “classmates,” to investigate the effect of student gender ratio on young women’s ability to absorb and remember computer science course material, as well as their interest in taking more classes in the subject. Preliminary results suggest that female students learn better when they are surrounded by female classmates —even virtual ones—and the more women in the room, the better. Perone’s and Friend’s findings suggest that the reason behind the success of the Online School for Girls may not be its stated emphasis on teaching girls differently, but simply the fact that its students know that their classmates are girls like them.

Another way to promote female students’ sense of belonging in online math and science courses would be putting more women at the head of virtual classrooms. (As professors Lisa L. Martin and Barbara F. Walter noted in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, MOOCs are overwhelmingly taught by men.) Female students could also be offered online mentoring by accomplished women working in STEM fields, a tack taken by Women in Technology Sharing Online (WitsOn). The brainchild of Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and the president of Harvey Mudd College, WitsOn was a one-time, six-week-long program that Klawe hopes to organize again in the future.

All these approaches have in common a focus, not on teaching girls and women differently, but on helping them to feel differently about their place in the fields of math and science. Just as in the physical world, in the virtual sphere the barriers to girls’ and women’s advancement in STEM fields remain very much in place. With informed intervention and clever design, however, the digital walls may prove easier to scale.
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

The Power of the Positive Phone Call Home

Edutopia

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: AUGUST 20, 2012 | UPDATED: SEPTEMBER 15, 2014

When I first started teaching and was overwhelmed by the demands and complexity of the job, my survival strategy was simply to take all the advice that came my way and implement it. So when my wise mentor suggested that after the first day of school I call all of my second grader’s parents, I did so.

In spite of my exhaustion, I called each family and introduced myself. I asked a few questions about their child. I said that their kid had had a good first day. I said I looked forward to working together.
Throughout that year, and the years that followed, I continued this practice — I had an intuitive feeling that it was key: The positive phone call home. After the first days, as soon as I’d identified the kids who might be challenging, I made it a goal to call home with positive news every week. I’d share this goal with my students, greeting them at the door with something like: “I’m so excited to see you this morning, Oscar! I am going to be watching you really closely today to find some good news to share with your mom this evening. I can’t wait to call her and tell her what a good day you had!”

When I taught middle school, this strategy made the difference between an unmanageable group of kids and an easy group. You’d be surprised, perhaps, how desperately an eighth grade boy wants his mom (or dad or grandma or pastor) to get a positive call home. On the first day of school I’d give students a survey that included this question, “Who would you like me to call when I have good news to share about how you’re doing in my class? You’re welcome to list up to five people. And please let them know I might call — even tonight or tomorrow!”

First I’d call parents of the kids who I knew would be challenging, those I suspected rarely got positive calls. When an adult answered the phone, I’d say, all in one long breath, “Hi Mrs. ____? I’m calling from ____ middle school with great news about your son, ____. Can I share this news?” If I didn’t immediately blurt out the “great news” pieces, sometimes they’d hang up on me or I’d hear a long anxious silence.

Some of these kids were difficult, extremely difficult. However, I was always able to find something sincerely positive about what he or she had done. As the days followed, I kept calling — “I just wanted to share that today when ____ came into my class he said ‘good morning’ to me and opened his notebook right away. I knew we’d have a good day!” Sometimes I’d stop in the middle of class and in front of all the students I’d call a parent. The kidsloved that. They started begging for me to call their parent too. It was the first choice of reward for good behavior — “just call my mama and tell her I did good today.”

What shocked and saddened me were the parents who would say, “I don’t think anyone has ever called me from school with anything positive about my child.” I occasionally heard soft sobbing during these calls.

I’d first used this phone call thing as a strategy for managing behavior and building partnerships and it worked. However, after ten years of teaching I became a parent and my feelings shifted into some other universe. As a parent, I now can’t think of anything more I want a teacher to do — just recognize what my boy is doing well, when he’s trying, when he’s learning, when his behavior is shifting, and share those observations with me.

I know how many hours teachers work. And I also know that a phone call can take three minutes. If every teacher allocated 15 minutes a day to calling parents with good news, the impact could be tremendous. In the long list of priorities for teachers, communicating good news is usually not at the top. But try it — just for a week — try calling a few kid’s parents (and maybe notjust the challenging ones — they all need and deserve these calls) and see what happens. The ripple effects for the kid, the class, and the teacher might be transformational.